German Chancellor Angela Merkel has one advantage when she meets Donald Trump to discuss a host of conflicts: expectations she can sway the U.S. president are close to zero.
After three days of back-slapping bonhomie with French President Emmanuel Macron, Trump is allotting two hours on Friday for a White House meeting with the leader of Europe’s biggest economy. And the list of U.S. grievances, from Germany’s huge trade surplus and paltry defense spending to a new Russian natural gas pipeline to Europe, mostly defy quick solutions.
The same goes for the immediate threat of a trade war between the U.S. and the European Union. German officials say Merkel sees little chance of stopping the tariffs Trump wants to impose on imports of European aluminum and steel on May 1, even as Macron and EU officials suggest he may relent.
Stripped of the pomp of Macron’s state visit, Merkel is likely to make her case with the methodical approach that’s a hallmark of her more than 12 years in power. Capping a two-prong movement by the EU’s top two leaders, she’ll try to accomplish what even Macron couldn’t: persuade Trump to back off his combative stance on trade and the Iran nuclear accord.
“Macron has a different style, a different personal approach—and he doesn’t have that bilateral agenda,” Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, vice president of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, said in an interview. “But for all his style, he’s got exactly nothing so far. I haven’t yet seen the influence on Donald Trump.”
In fact, Trump said Thursday that Macron “really came to recognize” his stance on the Iran pact.
“He is viewing, I believe, Iran a lot differently than he did before he walked into the Oval Office and I think that’s important,” Trump said on Fox. He reiterated his view that the Obama administration struck “a horrible deal” to freeze Iran’s nuclear weapons program.
Merkel and Macron coordinated their approaches to Trump during talks in Berlin last week and spoke again on the eve of her Washington visit.
In her case, the administration wants Germany to help level the playing field on trade, join the U.S. in combating global unfair trade practices and take on a bigger share of NATO defense spending, according to a White House official.
Merkel’s goal remains to win an extension of Trump’s tariff waiver for the EU by offering him longer-term talks on trade, including the prospect of renegotiating levies on industrial goods, a German official told reporters in Berlin on Thursday.
While Macron proposed a four-point plan to overcome Trump’s objections to the Iranian nuclear accord, Merkel wants to avert a trade war by offering to discuss grievances and get away from public tit-for-tat threats. Yet even Germany and France are at odds on what should be included in any such talks.
The U.S. is in fact willing to lift the threat of tariffs under certain conditions, Germany’s Bild newspaper reported on Friday, without saying what those might be or citing any source.
Merkel also faces domestic pressure to stand up to Trump. Bild, Germany’s most-read daily newspaper, said the U.S. president embraced Macron in a way “that the chancellor can only dream of.”
Germany’s other immediate goal is to avert possible U.S. sanctions related to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which the U.S. opposes. Without giving up on the project, Merkel shifted ground in March by saying political considerations must be taken into account.
And with the U.S. on track to become the world’s biggest exporter of liquefied natural gas, Merkel’s government is welcoming an LNG terminal being built at the North Sea port of Brunsbuettel.
“I think we may be able to make progress” on shielding European companies from any U.S. sanctions related to Nord Stream 2, Peter Beyer, the German government’s coordinator for relations with the U.S., told broadcaster SWR.
For all the attempts to engage with Trump, chancellery officials in Berlin view him as mercurial, focused on his domestic base and averse to long discussions, making the chances of reaching any understanding highly unpredictable.
“You might just as well as ask me whether I’ll win a big lottery prize next weekend,” said German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier, whom Merkel dispatched for trade talks with U.S. officials in March. “It’s possible, but you just don’t know in advance.”